Our culture is friendly and intense. But if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense.” – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Forbes. April 23, 2012

Exactly how would you define corporate culture as a business concept? Would it be as simple to say it’s the “personality” of a particular business? The truth is that corporate culture goes far beyond a personality or a company’s brand. It’s the collective ways in which 10’s, 100’s or 1000’s of employees interact to make all the day-to-day decisions (both large and small) that allows a company to execute its vision and strategy. It’s what makes a business greater than the sum of its parts. Absent a clearly executed vision and strategy – and an adaptive corporate culture – a company can come crashing down upon itself.  (We’ll keep these companies unnamed to protect the innocent!)

On the Road to Success

If vision is the destination then strategy is the engine. When built well, that engine will provide the power for a business to advance from point A to B.  This makes corporate culture the FUEL. And the “company car” won’t run without that fuel. Without this formula that car is on a meandering sight-seeing road trip, not a focused journey that delivers a clear value to its customers.

Today, the most effective company management teams see their job as providing alignment and clarity between WHERE they’re headed (vision), HOW they’ll get there (strategy) and HOW exactly they will work together to make decisions, collaborate on goals, and serve customers. In this high-octane age of greater competition across every industry, total alignment and clarity is the only way to win.

When the Vision-Strategy Formula Runs Out of Fuel

This is not to say the best laid plans of the vision-strategy formula don’t often go astray. Too often myopic executives spend a much higher percent of their time word-smithing a lofty vision statement and crafting a pithy strategy then developing the vital resources needed to create TOTAL clarity and alignment throughout their entire workforce. This includes clearly defining what that strategy means for their business and what they must DO in their corporate culture to execute it.

For example, two of our recent clients invested millions with the same high-priced consulting firm developing a fancy, well-researched strategy. In one case, after 6 months behind closed doors with an army of consultants, the top executives made a company-wide announcement that they would be selling off approximately half of all their brands. After this edict, people remained in a kind of virtual limbo for 9 months not knowing whether they would be on the sell or keep side of the equations. They had no idea whether the projects they were working on would be trashed or elevated. As you can imagine, while the company leaders figured out the details of who, what, when and where – productivity and morale plummeted. They still met their numbers, so executives could “crow” about the success. And, the spirit and sustainability of this organization’s primary capital – people – was eroded.

In another case, a company spent $25 million developing a strategy the business could not execute without implementing a massive change. In the ensuing 2 years (a lifetime in the business world!) they made minimal forward-progress. Unlike our first example, their numbers remained flat.  All because the leadership and culture were poorly aligned to deliver a much needed 180 shift in project charters, decisions, and change management practices.

When we taught their people a method to measure and align their corporate culture, this became the fuel behind their strategy, rather than culture being a hindrance. In both cases, we consciously worked to build a culture based on listening to people, made rapid progress of being clear and aligned toward shared vision.  More importantly, there is now a solid trust building among leaders and employees once again.

Amazon Works the Formula

Organizations with widespread shared clarity about vision, strategy AND corporate culture perform the best in the marketplace. In Amazon’s case, Jeff Bezos has 56,000 employees and 164 million customers who count on him getting this formula right. The evidence suggests he’s doing just that: Amazon stock is up 397% in the past five years, has a $90 billion stock market valuation, with a host of impressive growth numbers.

Amazon’s mission is clear and simple: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.

Their strategy is expressed best in one of Bezos’ top ten Maxims:

“Base your strategy on things that won’t change. For Amazon, the 3 big constants are: Wider selection, lower prices, and fast-reliable delivery.”

Their corporate culture (equal parts friendly and intense) is grounded in 2 main concepts:

  • The “empty chair”
  • Relentless measurement.

Bezos often leaves a chair open in meetings as a reminder to consider the empty seat, occupied by the customer, as “the most important person in the room.”   Another of Bezos’ maxims:

“Determine what your customers need and work backwards. If customers don’t want something, it’s gone – even if that means breaking apart a powerful department.”

They track performance against 500 measurable goals, almost 80% related to customer objectives. The culture is 100% aligned behind their mission and strategy.

Ask yourself the questions:

  • What kind of corporate culture are you creating to execute your strategy?
  • How aligned is your culture to deliver on your strategy?

Definitely worth the time to consider. Here are some valuable culture assessment tools that can help you develop a stronger organizational culture for your business.

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